Rene Naltsas

When we last profiled Ciera Mckissick, she was putting on fashion shows as part of her residency at the Chicago Art Department and editing AMFM, her online culture magazine, while harboring ambitions of opening an artist collective space in Pilsen. In the two and three-quarter years since then, she made that dream a reality, opening an AMFM storefront gallery on 21st Street that quickly garnered city-wide acclaim. Shortly after this interview aired on SSW Radio in August, Mckissick announced in a Facebook post that disputes with AMFM’s neighbors and landlords have resulted in the gallery being booted out of its space. True to form, it celebrated its tenure with a closing party, and has continued to put on outside events, like the close of its three-part West Side food and music festival FEAST. It has also raised over $1,400 in a fundraiser to secure a new physical space for the collective. This interview has been edited for length and clarity; listen to the full version of this interview that aired on SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio show and podcast.

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What inspired you to first open AMFM?

I was doing a lot of work out of Cultura in Pilsen, which was over off of 19th and Carpenter. But the landlord ended up doubling the rent on us. We all kind of became displaced after that and had to find a place for doing our show. So that’s kind of how the pop-ups started with us. We started doing our jazz series at other spaces around the city to try to compensate for not having that space, but then being in other areas and buildings and venues around the city, we realized that creative control is really important when you’re curating a space and trying to bring that feel and that vibe that you’re trying to have. When you have to deal with certain parameters [you’re] not able to create a safe space necessarily.

So the need became dire for us to get a space. I came across this spot that was like 1500 bucks, and it was three bedrooms and a storefront and it kind of just blew my mind, especially for it being on 18th Street. The price that it was at was unheard of. I ended up putting [a GoFundMe] and in the time that it took to raise the funds, the space actually ended up getting snatched up by someone else. But I came across this space that we have now [the now-former AMFM location at 2151 W. 21st Street], maybe within four days of that happening. And I had just enough raised to be able to cover first and last month’s rent for this space, so it was kind of like a blessing in disguise.

Did you have any challenges this year?  

In the beginning I was doing a lot of this on my own or with like two other people. It just became super important for a team to be built because we were turning out events every weekend and I was also working a nine to five at the time. Being split between two different places, running home from work and stuff—getting used to that really was taxing.

My focus for the first year was really trying to do the programming but also trying to build and solidify a team. And now I can say that I definitely do have that. And right now we’re really trying to focus on infrastructure and trying to get over the hump to the next level. So that we can do bigger and better things, legitimize ourselves as we’ve been kind of riding the line of DIY space and kind of space and trying to take that to the next level so that we can put on for people in bigger and grander ways.

You were in the middle of making masks with Iridium Clothing Company. You also have partnered with the Silver Room and done events with them. When you’re looking for someone to collaborate with, what are you searching for in that partnership?

We really try to work with emerging artists, but also to create access and diversity in spaces that aren’t necessarily, you know, filled with those things. Like, if I’m doing an activation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which we’ve been fortunate enough to do twice since we’ve opened, who can I think about bringing into those spaces who deserved to have a seat at that table and get that recognition? It’s really amazing being able to be a connector of organizations or institutions directly to the emerging artists on the ground that we’re working with and also being able to, you know, bring really positive movements and work and social movements into those spaces as well.

When you first moved to Chicago, did you notice a lack of spaces that are like this, that are a safe place for LGBTQ Black and brown people? Can you talk about that a little bit? About the progression and maybe your influence on how it is now?

When I came here, I was just kind of like observing and going to a lot of shows. I didn’t really know a lot of people in the city. So I was just like bopping around by myself and would just start chatting with people and talking about my magazine. And I was able to make a lot of really great connections. And it also made it really apparent how much talent the city is actually brimming with because I initially was only planning on staying in Chicago for like a year.

But I really fell in love with the people and the drive and the work that people were doing out here. And being in Chicago has really broadened my horizons and given me the opportunity to kind of spread my wings and come into my own self as an artist just surrounded by [people] who were doing that for themselves. Everybody’s supporting one another and if they’re not, like they’re competing in a healthy way with one another as well too. And that was just something that really stuck out to me.

But I was also finding that, you know, things would be around for awhile and they would kind of fizzle because of space, because of monetary reasons, or stuff like that. And I wanted to really make something that was sustainable. I remember one of the first couple of things that I fell in love with was going to the gala that used to be at Canvas and they would have a open mic once a month or so. And I was going to those. And there are so many beautiful people, amazing artists and stuff like that. But it kind of dissipated and I know that they’ve been trying to build them back up, and we were hosting some of them here.

I wanted to bring [my marketing experience] to the art so that we could make it like a business model and really offer a platform that can help catapult people to get opportunities that you wouldn’t necessarily get at a DIY underground space. I want it to feel very community-oriented and feel DIY, but also tap the legitimacy that organizations like the School of the Art Institute or the MCA or larger organizations would want to work with so that we can give them the artists that are doing the actual work. And I think I’ve seen it evolve since then, being a young person who was able to, you know, have my dreams, like literally come true before my eyes and get a space and be able to give back to the community. I think it was inspiring to a lot of other people to want to take that leap of faith and like do the same.

I needed someone to tell me that it was possible. I needed to see that it was possible in order to have that faith to be able to do it. My anniversary was May 19th. I was so scared for so long, but it came to a point where I felt like I was living two lives and I wasn’t truly invested in the work that I was doing outside of it. So I had to give everything my all. And I think that that’s what art really is. Like if you feel it and you need it and it’s carnal and like for you, like you have to give yourself to it. And I think that that’s what we try to do in offering space and these different platforms for people to be able to do that.

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Maya Horton is a contributor to the Weekly and SSW Radio. She is also a criminal justice reporter for Free Spirit Media. Follow her on Twitter at @Maya_Jamaica. This is her first piece for the Weekly.

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